Letterlyn by Evelyn Cunningham

Letterlyn Blog

When is a place too scarred to move on?

It's a warmer February day, I am walking with Dakota and Pacho on the footbridge toward Belle Isle, a little piece of Richmond that pokes up from the tumbling waters of the James River. Richmond, is an old, American City. Sometimes, when you're surrounded by busy, city murals and bars, it is easy to forget that the city was founded in 1737; that it's history is both as beautiful and dark as the poetry and writings of Edgar Allen Poe, who considered Richmond home for much of his life. But, for once, I am not thinking of poetry as I walk the windy bridge to the little island. I am thinking instead, of war.

Earlier that week, after a cursory bit of research about the Island, I found that it had roots far darker than my friends had ever told me. Most of the people I knew in Richmond raved about the island. They talked of swimming and sunbathing on the rocks, sneaking a flask between them if there weren't too many people around. They talked a little of ghost stories. But, to be honest, you can find ghost stories all over Virginia. With it's colonial history so old and violent, its native-american history stretching far beyond that, it isn't difficult to stumble onto tales of ghosts and spirits, benevolent or violent.

But, walking to the island, that research is fresh on my mind. And, suddenly, I find myself standing on the site of a Civil War POW camp. I am standing on the site where, one winter, 1,000 Union Soldiers died because there wasn't adequate food or shelter for them. And, if you don't take the time to read the signs (which, as I know from working at a museum, most people don't read signs) you would never know about this horrible history. Sure, someone made a bike rack that slightly resembles a tent to "draw attention" to the conditions of the camp. But, honestly, it falls short of its goal and just appears to be a weird bike rack if you don't know better.

On that day, I stand before an open field where so many men died, mountain bikes and parents tugging children in wagons whizzing past me, wondering if a land ever heals from such scars. I ask myself that question a lot. You see, my whole life, I've walked and lived on scarred ground - everything from my parent's' neighborhood, which was the site of a colonial plantation that undoubtedly had slaves or indentured servants, to the city I live in, which has been burned by wars and racked with disease and turmoil at various times.

I grew up near the site of the Battle of Yorktown, where on October 19th, 1781, British Lieutenant General Cornwallis surrendered to General George Washington, prompting negotiations to end the American Revolutionary War. There, hundreds of men died, hundreds were injured, and thousands were captured as prisoners. There, too, hundreds of people gather every year to celebrate Independence Day. There, we celebrate joyously on a field of battle and death.
(Learn more about the Battle of Yorktown from the National Parks Service)

The site of the Siege of Yorktown, and Manassas Battlefield park in Northern Virginia, which commemorates the site of the First and the Second Battles of Bull Run during the American Revolutionary War, are also popular destinations for another reason: taking engagement photos. Thousands of people died during the Battles at Bull Run. And, thousands of joyous couples jump off of cannons and laugh lovingly at each other lovingly to the click of a camera. My friend, Sarah, who works at a historic battlefield site, brought the Manassas example to my attention. (Thanks, Sarah!) Is it really appropriate to take our lovey-dovey engagement photos there?

While we're on the topic of weddings, venue picks can be even worse. This article, from Salon goes into the disturbing trend of being married on a plantation. Even stating that the websites of some of these plantations, including Tuckahoe Plantation here in Virginia, do not mention the word slavery at all. I remember planning my own Virginia wedding, and being horrified at the thought of saying my wedding vows at such a place. The beautiful grounds can't mask the horror of colonial history.

So, is it appropriate to laugh and hike and play at Belle Isle, is it appropriate to laugh and play on a battlefield, is it okay to get married on a plantation? The joy and the horror are so incongruous, I feel paralyzed at sites like the POW camp at Belle Isle and the site of the Siege of Yorktown. Maybe, we shouldn't celebrate love at these places. The answer for the plantation is definitely, concretely NO, it is not okay to glamorize that history. I just don't think those deep wounds heal. It is disrespectful to glamorize it at all.